Theirs Not to Reason Why: The Passage

Wednesday

The sergeant did yell at the unit, though he had only been promoted from among their ranks a few months ago, and part of him still flinched at having to inflict discipline. He thought of the old rising sergeants who had seemed to change their personalities overnight, suddenly overconfident and smug. Some days he envied them. Other days he feared that they had all felt this way deep down, and that to his men, he now looked just like one of them. Sergeant David Powell, just another big-headed man aiming to stick his head up above the rest of them.

The rant that he gave was rote and general, recobbled from words he had blustered and heard blustered before. The bluster had been better on other days. In a moment of faltering silence, he decided to begin the briefing for the mission. He knew how the briefing was going to end, and he didn’t know how to conclude the lecture. That was how he made his decision; what would let him escape this chore with some dignity. It surprised him, just how many of his leadership decisions were guided by that.

He paced along the line of men. He looked better than he felt. He was a man with a slight build but quietly regal posture. His skin was the deep reddish brown of a chestnut shell, and he had recently grown a small mustache that suited him. As he walked, he would periodically lock eyes with a soldier. When he could not hold a former comrade’s eyes anymore, he would glance quickly to another’s face, without looking up or down. Hoping nobody saw a flicker of uncertainty in between. Nobody did.

“In fifty years, Matteo Garibaldi is the only defector to reach us with credible, useful intel. To provide us with information, he has been making use of a series of caves, which he believes the Arcadian patrols are unaware of. He will be leading us through those caves. The journey will take the better part of our week, but it will let us out at a point near a trio of watchtowers. The Elementals posted at these towers have overlapping ranges with each other. By taking all three out, we will create a gap in their electromagnetic defenses. Our planes will be able to fly through, straight to the heart of their capital. The success of this plan, from the journey through the caves to the attack on the watchtowers to the ultimate destination of the plane, relies entirely on information supplied by Matteo Garibaldi. So if you aren’t willing to trust him, fall out now. You’re not welcome with us.”

Sergeant Powell waited. In his head, he heard rebuttals, the kinds that would never be uttered in line, but saved until they fell out and he was out of sight. Most of them would revolve around good reasons to distrust him (he’s Arcadian, why is he doing this, how is it that no one else has found these caves before him, how do we know this isn’t a trap) and fun suggestions for what they could do to him if he did betray them.

Of course, nobody fell out. Of course, nobody trusted the scout.

“Very good. I’m glad to see I can rely on you all. The cave entrance is in the middle of no man’s land. It can be crossed at night. Take only what you need. And try to get some rest this afternoon. You’ll need it.”

The desert that the Arcadians had created extended for two miles. Across the first mile, the elementals in the watchtowers allowed the military to retrieve their dead and wounded. If their invasions passed that points, the rescuers would soon need rescuers themselves. By now it was easy to see the point of no return. It was littered with shattered jeeps, melted tanks, downed planes, fragmented weaponry. You could find a bone here and there. No skeletons. The crows and vultures scattered bones as they picked them clean. The unit crossed without lights, in a stooped, single line. In the distance, lights flickered in the watchtowers, where the night guards kept their eyes on the perimeter.

The cave’s entrance was just a little slit in the stony earth. Sergeant Powell thought for a moment that Matteo had simply taken cover behind a low boulder, then wondered why he had stopped for so long. Then Corporal Ciernik tapped him on the shoulder, and moved him a few inches closer. Ciernik’s gift included sharpened senses as well as enhanced strength, and what was invisible to David was clear to him. As he looked closer, Powell saw that one shadow was not a shadow. It did not move with his vision.

“Jesus Christ, that’s small,” he muttered. Ciernik nodded. Powell took a deep breath.

“Stay behind until all the men are through. Make sure everyone can see it.”

Ciernik nodded once more, and Powell dove into the crevice.

Powell was not normally claustrophobic, but this was not going to be pleasant for anybody. The boulder that partially covered this entrance was an iceberg; a little bit poking above, a swollen mass below. The rock dipped and rose, forcing him to slither back and forth to avoid unpleasant bumps. And, though it might have been his imagination, the uneven slope of the ceiling averaged downwards faster than the floor did. The space was small, and it was getting smaller.

Ahead, a right light flickered. Matteo had a little ball of light inching along with him. Behind Powell, a soldier clicked on a flashlight to make his way forwards. Seeing the size of the narrow gap made Powell’s stomach wrench more, not less. He pushed on.

The gap opened up all at once, dumping Powell down into the floor of the little chamber. The passage ahead, just big enough to walk through with shoulders barely brushing the walls, looked roomy compared to what they had come through. A few moments of waiting in silence, and then Loman, the first man who had been in line after Ciernik, rolled out. Barnes came next, followed by Warren. The chamber was getting crowded.

“Start the march,” Powell said.

Matteo shook his head; a gesture that pricked some immediate annoyance in Powell. Intellectually, he knew the man was a civilian, not trained into military discipline, nor required to follow it. But emotionally, a scrawny kid who nobody liked was undermining his authority.

“We have a long way to go, and we won’t all have room in here,” Powell pressed.

“We’ve all got to stay in sight of each other. It’s twisty, and there are a lot of forks you don’t want to take.”

Dammit, he had a point. Meanwhile, Gladwin emerged, increasing their number to five, not counting Matteo.

“So stay together. If the man in back can’t see the man in front of him, pass up the word to halt. I’ll wait until we have a full count.”

Matteo accepted this, and began to lead the way. Powell’s men filed through, and back through the tunnels, he heard the periodic call to halt. He quickly repeated the instructions to each soldier as he emerged. Kaufer came through sixth, and he repeated, “Kaufer, six, Kaufer, six,” in his head until McKendrick came out and made seventh. Every now and then, Powell felt a panicky sense that he had skipped or repeated a number. He reminded himself that whatever the number, Ciernik would come through last.

When Salcedo, number eighteen, came through, Powell began to relax. Sorenson would be nineteen, then, if he hadn’t made a mistake, Ciernik would make twenty. Either way, at least he would know.

Moments passed. He heard Salcedo call halt, and without looking, he could easily imagine him waiting in the hall, waiting anxiously as Powell himself.

Then the call came from Ciernik. “Help! We need help up here!”

“Stay put!” Powell shouted, to Salcedo and Ciernik equally. He dropped his pack and dove into the crevice. It was better without his gear, but it was still miserable. He made for the two points of light that were Ciernik and Sorenson’s flashlights.

Ciernik was paused by Sorenson, whose bulk was obviously giving him even more trouble getting through the gap.

“I can’t fucking move, sarge,” he said.

For a moment, time fell into a sickening vacuum. Powell reached for options to get him through the narrow pass, and imagined there might be none.

He swallowed.

“Is it your pack?” he said. “Is your gear hooked on something?”

Sorenson shook his head. It wasn’t even on his back. Like most of the soldiers he had dragged it along with one hand. Still, Powell wasn’t willing to give up on the possibility of a problem that was more easily solved.

“Let’s just try getting it out. Ciernik, haul it the fuck out of here.”

“Sure, sarge.” Ciernik’s voice sounded artificially light.

They pried the gear out of Sorenson’s hand, and Powell heard Ciernik shuffle past them.

“Okay, let’s try again.”

“I can’t fucking move, sarge,” Sorenson repeated.

“Well, all fucking right then. Let’s back you the fuck up and give it another shot.”

“I. Can’t. Move.”

Damn. Damn damn damn god fucking damn it.

“Listen,” Powell’s tone took on a soft, half mocking, half cajoling tone. “You got the fuck down here, right? So stands to reason you can move one way or another. So pick a direction and get the fuck going.”

“I can’t fucking move!”

“Don’t you use that tone with me, soldier!” Powell snapped back, and Sorenson’s face took on a new look; that shocked out of himself look. The military, ready for orders look. If he could keep Sorenson in that space, maybe they had a chance. He scanned the space they had left to clear.

“Do you think you’re thicker than my arm is long, soldier?”

“Sarge?”

Powell held his forearm out, fingers rigid. “Do you think you’re thicker, from your ass to your belly, than here,” he touched his elbow, “to here?” he touched the tip of his middle finger.

“I- I don’t think so, sarge.”

“Good.” Powell put his elbow on the ground. His fingers brushed the ceiling, and he suppressed a shudder. “Now, this is more than your fucking size, and frankly, soldier, your fucking flab is a lot squishier than my fucking bones. So if I can get all the way back with my hand like this, you can squeeze after me. Right, soldier?”

“I guess so, sarge.”

“I said, right soldier?!”

“Yes, sarge!”

“Good. Now, let’s get going.”

Powell started wriggling backwards. For a moment, Sorenson remained frozen. Then his right arm moved ahead, and he pulled on it. He budged, just a bit.

“That’s it. Get a move on.”

The move was agonizingly slow, and sometimes Powell had to weave to fit his whole arm in. Sometimes they kept moving for five or ten seconds together, but most of the time they moved in shorter spurts, Sorenson wincing in pain.

“That’s it. Don’t worry about losing a few goddamn buttons. There’s not gonna be a fucking fashion show on the other side,” David said.

Please don’t get stuck. Please make it. Please don’t get stuck, Powell thought.

Time disappeared into a rhythm of squeeze, wiggle, freeze cajole, rant, squeeze again. Words stopped having meanings. They were just leftover globs of grease, thrown onto the walls.

Then, the space behind Powell’s feet opened up. He kicked a little to make sure, then grinned.

“We’ve made it, Sorenson.”

Once Powell had rolled out and Sorenson had reached the opening, Ciernik and Salcedo gripped his arms and pulled him the rest of the way out. They clapped his back and teased him while he gasped for breath. He looked pale and shaky, but he was fine. For a second, Powell let himself feel elated.

“Right,” he said. “Enough delay. Let’s move out.”

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Theirs Not to Reason Why: The Scout

Tuesday

Of all possible postings for an empowered soldier, there was something exquisitely forboding about the Adirondack Bases. They formed a ring of encampments around the namesake mountains, and looked out on a tidy two mile ring of dry, flattened, utterly devastated earth. Every here and there were the ruins of past invasions. Halted tanks that had been twisted like a giant hand had reached down and wrung them out. Airplanes downed by electrical storms that had been conjured out of nowhere. Bones. Far too many bones. Often the occupants of the mountains would not even allow people to go in to retrieve their dead. They were all empowered families of the Elemental lines, and they had claimed the mountains as their Arcadia.

In the best case, a soldier stationed to one of these bases spent months or years training and watching before moving on. On seven occasions over the past fifty years, the powers that be had decided they had a perfect plan for finally ridding America of this rebellious blight, and reclaiming the mountains. These missions tended to be short on survivors.

But still, the Adirondacks were officially part of America, so every now and then, the soldiers would wake up to find they were part of the latest mission. True surrender of this goal was political suicide. Even the bases were a peculiar compromise between temporary and permanent; a handful of metal barracks and training rooms, but mostly tents. Even in winter. Why go on record as the one who proposed a plan for more long-term structure? That did not go well with career advancement.

The generals were currently project confidence that their new asset would guarantee victory, a week from next Thursday.

The asset was an Arcadian guide. Nobody had seen an Arcadian since they had first laid down their border of wasteland. He looked displaced from time. Handwoven, undyed flannel trousers, rough rusty red tunic, and a cloak dyed woad blue. His escorts into camp spread a rumor that he did not even own another set of clothes, but instead just washed and rewashed the same pair. He used a basin in his own tent, and a bar of hand soap.

He was a short man of about twenty, with thick black hair all over his ears and eyebrows. Even if it was not for his clothing and grooming, he would stand out by the way he walked; not solid and purposeful like the soldiers. He moved like a ferret or a squirrel, with attention that flitted from subject to subject while retaining sharp clarity of focus, and poised feet light enough to seize a prize or flee a threat at a moment’s notice. At dinner in the canteen, he sat alone with a bound leather notebook and scribbled notes with one hand, eating with the other.

On top of the track record of previous invasions and the obvious allegiances of the young man who had their lives in his hands, the word “distraction” was floating around. Nobody knew whether its source was credible or not, but it affected the mood all the same. Soldiers did not like hearing that they were going in as a distraction. Best case scenario, they succeeded with all the risk and none of the glory. Worst case scenario, they were intentional cannon fodder.

It was Private Sorenson who turned the whispers into action. Because of course it was Sorenson. The powers that be might provide the recruits, the assignments and the contacts, but it was Sorenson who judged their worth. The strength of an army was in its unity, and when those on high could no longer inspire faith and determination, the Sorensons of the world stepped in. Whether his test was a fistfight, a bit of banter, or just a night on the town, that test counted for as much as all the arms and supply lines combined. It wasn’t even that Sorenson’s judgment was particularly good. It was more that he knew how to look for all the things that nobody in charge thought to look for. The things that made no difference to the people writing the plans, but every difference to the people carrying them out.

Even before the test began, though, there was something different about Sorenson’s approach. His face was tense, his fists already clenched. The little wrinkle that usually marked his eyes, that newbies missed but that old friends knew to look for, was not only reduced, but completely gone. Today, the canteen audience looked without looking like they were looking.

“Hey,” Sorenson said, towering over the scout. “I got a fucking question for you. Been bothering me for a fucking while now. If your people are such fans of simple living and nature and green shit, what the fuck is with the goddamn desert you made?”

Sorenson was, of course, impossible to ignore. He was leaning over the table, his shadow cutting a circus wrestler outline across the plate of the Arcadian. Even so, the Arcadian made a show of slowly taking another forkful of canned beans and instant potatoes, replacing the fork on the plate, and following the bite with a sip of water before taking a look.

“Well, you keep driving tanks over that particular area, and you must admit it’s a little easier to see them this way,” he said. His voice was surprisingly soft, especially given that his tone was not. He had that deep, old fashioned New England accent that could almost be mistaken for an original English accent. Perhaps that was how all Arcadians spoke now.

Sorenson gave a low, almost gleeful whistler. “Now, of all the fucking answers you could have given, that was not one of the smart ones.”

“Listen, since this is clearly a test of some kind, can we just get to the part where I find out if there’s an answer that will actually pass? Because, and I say this with considerable experience, this is not feeling like one of those conversations that I can get out of without being punched.”

“Sure you fucking can. You can admit your crunchy ideals are all a bunch of hypocritical bullshit.”

“Well, in my experience, any sufficiently large group of people gets hypocritical about something.”

“Not mine.”

“Really? Tell me, on this side of the mountains, what do they say happened in 1776? Something about choosing to leave a parent nation?”

Sorenson lifted the scout and threw him to the ground. The scout was knocked breathless for a moment. He coughed, raised himself halfway, brushed some dust off his shoulder, and sat back at his meal.

“Now that you’ve got that out of the way, can I assume we are done now?” he said, nodding towards the book.

He was struck in the face, and toppled back into the ground. His upper lip was split and pooling blood onto his teeth. With a sigh, he pulled himself back up into his seat.

“Is your hand all right? I think you got my teeth there.”

Sorenson shrugged, and held up his fist. There was a cut on his knuckle, but the skin pulled itself together and sealed the wound without so much as a mark. He gave a maniacal grin, one his friends had never seen. If someone had suggested that the ghosts of the unburied dead soldiers had swooped in to possess him, half the camp would believe it, and the other half would pretend to be more skeptical than they were.

“Oh, good,” the scout said, even more dryly than before. “We’re all fine then.”

Another strike put him back in the dust, and this time, Sorenson did not give him a chance to get up. The scout had to roll quickly to avoid another strike, and wriggled under the table. Sorenson grabbed him by the ankle and dragged him out. He pinned the scout by the chest, and raised his fist.

“Enough!” A sandy haired soldier grabbed Sorenson by his collar, easily hauling him to his feet despite being nearly a head shorter.

Sorenson pushed him back, but the soldier shoved him back harder.

“Enough, I said. You really gonna kill our only scout to make a fucking point?”

“Maybe if I make the fucking point, bastards on high will find one who isn’t a goddamn crunchy,” he muttered. But his shoulders had already taken on a deflated look, and he stomped back to his meal.

The sandy haired soldier sighed and held his hand to the scout.

“Come on, let’s get you to the clinic.”

“I’m all right,” the scout said, but took the other man’s hand.

The soldier put his hand on the scout’s soldier, and muttered in a low voice, “Trust me, you want to clear the room for a minute.”

The scout nodded, and reached back to grab his notebook before letting himself be lead away.

“I’m Nick Barnes,” the soldier said, when they had left the tent. Sunset was now just a reddish smudge on the horizon, and the first stars were coming out.

“Matteo Garibaldi.”

Nick Barnes did not say nice to meet you or anything of that nature, but he gave a nod, and the two walked on. Under his hand, Nick could feel a slight tremor in Matteo’s shoulder. There was no external sign of it. Matteo’s face was as carelessly unfazed as it had been during the entire fight (if something so one-sided could be called a fight). But the shaking was there, and the evening was too warm to account for it.

“He’s not usually like that,” Nick said.

“Oh? What is he usually like?”

Nick tried to decide whether he was being mocked or tested. He could not make up his mind. “He’s always rough around the edges, but he’s pretty friendly. Kind of like a big dog, you know? He’s got a sense of humor.”

“Not usually quite so murderous, then?”

“I don’t think he really would have killed you. Might have cracked a rib or two though. When you spend all your time around people who can crack a rock one handed, you forget what a normal person can take.”

“Funny. I’ve never forgotten that most people are flammable.”

“You’re pyrokinetic?”

Matteo nodded.

“Oh. Still, it’s not like Elementals can’t burn.”

“Not my point.”

“Yeah… all right, it was a lousy excuse. We’re all just pretty tense right now. It’ll get better in the morning.”

The medical tent was nearly empty. The cots were unoccupied except for one private who had broken his ankle yesterday. He had stepped in a gopher hole while playing baseball. The nurse on duty was dozing in a canvas chair. Nick went straight to the supply cabinet and pulled out some wraps and ointment.

“They don’t like most of the guys doing this,” he said. “But I can get away with it.”

“You do this a lot?”

“Just with the guys who throw a fit letting the nurse look at them. So long as I leave the big stuff to the pros and put everything back where I found it…”

Nick ran some hot water through a cloth. He put a hand to Matteo’s neck to tilt his head up, and clean off the blood and dust.

Having nowhere else to look, Matteo studied Nick’s face. It was a nice one, almost too nice. It was one of those faces people put on propaganda posters and advertisements, because it was exaggeratedly just how faces were supposed to look. It almost looked fake. His eyes mitigated that somewhat by not being the ideal piercing sky blue, but just a watery, grayish blue. You had to look closely to notice they really were blue, and not gray or hazel. Matteo liked them for two reasons. First, they made him look a little sad and much more real. Second, Matteo himself had vivid, grass green eyes, but a sort of odd, elfin face, made up of parts that should look nice individually, but somehow didn’t quite belong together. He had gradually come to like it, but only by telling himself that it was charmingly homely rather than actually ugly. This made Nick’s face a sort of perfect reversal of his own, and Matteo liked the symmetry of that.

“All right, it’s not bad. Just bled a lot at first,” Nick put the cloth down and picked up the antibiotic ointment. “Put a bit of that on.”

Matteo cringed at the smell but obeyed. It didn’t sting. Even felt soothing.

“Cut up anywhere else? Anything feel like it’s swelling?”

Matteo shook his head. “Just bruises, I think. I’ve had worse.”

“All right. Just head back to your bunk. Sarge will yell at everyone in the morning, and they’ll leave you alone.”

Part of Matteo wanted to bite back again, but most of him felt done with snark for the evening. He also felt he should say thank you. It was hard to explain what made him start to leave without saying it. Maybe it was the matter of fact way Nick was already cleaning up, like he was just doing some perfectly ordinary duty, and to thank him would be embarrassing more than anything. Even so, before he reached the entrance of the tents, Matteo turned back and said, “Thank you, by the way.”

Nick looked startled, then looked back down and nodded a brief acknowledgement. Matteo started to walk away, but paused again at Nick’s voice.

“I can get you some fatigues,” Nick was saying.

“I’m sorry?”

“You know, like what we’re wearing.”

“Oh, that’s all right.”

“Just thinking, maybe part of the issue is that they think if you’re still dressed like that, maybe you can’t be trusted. Like if you’re still in their clothes, part of you is still loyal to Arcadia. Not logical, but that’s people for you.”

“Actually, I am completely loyal to Arcadia. If there was anything else I could do for her, I would do it.”

Matteo waited to see if Nick expected more of an explanation. But it did not seem that he did.

Obsession

I did a fair bit of obsessing last night, over a lot of things. One outcome was that I finally got what I hoped to get out of this thing-a-day project; a game plan for going forward. This didn’t work out the way I expected. I expected that I’d end up writing a few simple, fun posts that I liked, and discover subjects that I didn’t realize I had wanted to talk about. Instead, I discovered that the things I want to write about go deep, and need even more ongoing work and in-depth research to do properly.

I also need to take a break for now, because I’ve got two other big obsessions going on. One is a fiction project that I am very proud of and want to release when it is completed. I don’t think I am that far from completion, relatively speaking, and I want to hammer on through that. The other is a student who I have been assigned to work on. The Philadelphia special ed system is not what I’m used to. I have a toolkit, built from seven years working with special needs students, but some of the tools that I’ve used most aren’t useful, and others that have gone rusty with age are going to be called on a lot. Also, instead of focusing on the entire classroom to the degree that I’m used to, I have an assigned student who I need to support during their particular moments of need.

I… am not clicking with that student as much as I’d like to. In the long term, this isn’t the first time I’ve struggled to connect with a kid, and I’ve always been able to work through that eventually. Some you click with instantaneously, some take months to bond. The only thing that makes this different is that, on paper, I’m supposed to have a particular connection with this kid. I’m supposed to be able to handle him in his rough moments, and I can’t just hand him off to somebody else to work through things. So that’s frustrating. It also means that I need to use my obsessive personality to keep trying to figure him out.

Between the two of these things, I don’t think I have the mental space to give those posts the obsessive attention that they need. So I’m giving myself permission to take a break from this. I hate doing that, but I think it’s the only way that bigger, more important things will get done.

Thanks, as always, for reading, and I look forward to some future point when I’ll be obsessively posting here again.

Ongoing

Today’s theme is, apparently, “keep trying.”

Keep trying to finish your story.

Keep trying to bond with the kid in your class who just flat out doesn’t want to work with you.

Keep trying to balance getting your shit done with taking it easy so this lingering cold doesn’t turn into full blown misery.

Keep trying to find something to say on your blog until the deadline of the 20th comes up.

Keep trying.

Continuing the Theme of Finding Material In My Own Reluctance to Write

A possible solution to the problem I talked about last Friday; focus on private experiences, without trying to convince anybody that my opinions, resulting from those experiences, are definitive.

A problem; it would be disingenuous.

Of course my real intent would be to convince. I love to debate. I love to prove wrong, and be proven wrong, to clash differing opinions together until the result is shaped and honed into something as close to truth as we can find it. At one point I thought of the internet as a great avenue for that impulse. I don’t feel that way anymore.

Friday

The last day of me writing a thing, on this week where I don’t want to write about a thing. As I examine why I’m so reluctant, I keep coming back to this; what if I’m wrong?

Well, assuming anybody is even paying attention, one of two things can happen. First, I can be called out on it. I am all right with that. Life is all about evolution. We evolve through failure and criticism. It is fine to be told I am wrong.

Second, I can go uncriticized. This is the option that scares me. In these days of the internet, so much information is put out there without proper fact checking. We are overwhelmed with the sheer volume of research that must be done, and so instead we follow the people who say what we would like to believe. What if, in trying to correct the failings of someone else, I spread my own misinformation?

This is another reason I crave privacy. I am currently learning things and I do not think I am certain enough in what I know to speak about them. When I speak, I want to either be sure I’m right, or be sure that I’m speaking with the kind of authority that will bring a qualified critic to me. I don’t want to be another uncorrected, ignorant voice cluttering the debate.

Writing About Writing About Writing

Welp, I fucked up. I was supposed to push through and put something out there yesterday. I didn’t.

Instead, I hammered away at a scene I’ve been struggling with, because it has a lot of characters and moving parts. It turned out pretty well, after hours of fiddly work. I’m finding the secret to my writing productivity is hitting a balance between idealism and acceptance. Like any writer, I need to accept that some things will need to be fixed later, and some things will never be fixed at all. At the same time, if I feel like yesterday’s writing was at least marginally good, I am more likely to return to it today.

I think, in order to continue this blog, I need to find that balance. The bit I wrote from the day before yesterday made me realize I need to re-find that slice of my life that is public enough for me to share yet private enough to be meaningful. I also need to find the place where I can let my blogging be flawed, but good enough to come back to.

Hopefully more tomorrow, as I continue to think about what this blog can and should be.

Privacy and Processing

I decided yesterday that “no writing on weekends” includes three day weekends. Then today, I continued not feeling like writing.

Or rather, I felt like not writing anything but my story. I am excited about the story I’m working on. It’s the second thing I’ve written recently that I actually want to share with the world. I love the feeling of having two works in progress that may actually be published, in some form or another. What I don’t feel like doing is writing the blog.

Mostly that’s part of suddenly feeling very private. Which is a problem, because we live in a social media driven age. I want my stories to be successful; a social media presence of some sort will be integral to that (especially as I want to pursue non-traditional publishing avenues). Yet I don’t want to share myself on social media. I have no Facebook, no Twitter, no Instagram, nothing but this and an email address and a Tumblr. So I damn well better not neglect what I’ve got.

But I want to. I want to because I’m processing. I fear the intrusiveness of social media, because I worry that it doesn’t give us enough time to process our feelings before we make them a matter of public record. There are ideas I have, but I don’t want to commit to them, not because I don’t want to share my thoughts, but because I don’t trust the internet to let my ideas evolve. Or to not dredge up what I have now in order to tear me down later, regardless of whether or not it is relevant.

Also, sometimes I just want to talk things out with myself and a few close friends before I share them with the world.

Anyway, now I’ve stalled for one day. Let’s see what I am thinking about tomorrow.

Why “Ugh, Men,” Will Probably Get to Me, But “Ugh, White People,” Probably Won’t

In social justice circles, there has been a recent, common acceptance of the idea that jokes targeting privileged people never count as unkind. This isn’t the argument everybody sets out to make, of course. Many people make a sensible distinction between targeting privilege and cultural institutions, as opposed to targeting groups of people. But the pervasive attitude is that complaining about jokes that come at the expense of a privileged identity is uncool. Privileged people should always be able to shrug them off.

I think this is a flawed attitude. First, I think any joke told in an unkind spirit is automatically unkind. An unkind joke aimed at a person of privilege probably won’t be as institutionally damaging as one aimed at a marginalized person, that much is true, but if the intent was truly mean spirited and hurtful, the teller of the joke still bears the responsibility for intentionally being an asshole to another human being.

But there’s also differences in the underlying structures of privilege, and the messages people send with common jokes. I am white and male. When a Black person teases me for being white, the dynamic is starkly different from when a woman pokes fun at me for being male.

For one thing, racial jokes typically poke fun at attributes that don’t especially matter. I’m quiet. I’m an awkward dancer. My tolerance for spicy food leaves something to be desired. These are traits that are so irrelevant, in the grand scheme of who I am, I can’t possibly imagine them being made fun of with a real intent to do harm. It would take a remarkably thin skinned person to find them genuinely offensive.

But when I hear a woman start saying, “ugh, men,” I flinch, because I expect to be hit somewhere that will actually hurt. They do generally cut to something that goes deep under the surface. For example, crying. I’ve known a lot of strong women who mock men when they cry. This comes in two ways, often from the same people. One minute I hear men torn down for being insufficiently emotional. The next second I see men who complain when they are sick or hurt or sad called “crybabies.”

The stigma against men crying is tied to a lot of sexist ideas about emotions and weakness; ideas that harm both men and women. Women are allowed to express most of their emotions, with the exception of anger, whereas for men anger is often the only avenue permissible. Really, all humans should be allowed to feel and express the full range of human emotions. Feminists are good about reclaiming anger for women, but not all of them are actually comfortable with men reclaiming things like joy, pain, grief, embarrassment, and sadness. Expressing pain and sorrow is critical to processing it, and the pathological effects of men not expressing it is actually documented. Men are less likely to seek help when sick, and thus more likely to die of treatable conditions, and while women attempt suicide more often, they are far more likely to engage in the hesitant, cry-for-help sort that leads to lifesaving treatment. Men are significantly more likely to hold off on any mental health treatment until they are absolutely beyond a shred of hope. Then they actually kill themselves. The rate of successful first-time suicide attempts for men is much, much higher.

In contrast, white people don’t eat as much spicy food because we came from areas without as many spicy plants. So we grow up with more mildly spiced food, because that’s what’s in the family recipe book. It’s not exactly a big deal.

And yet, I feel as though, if I point out the distinction between these jokes, somebody is going to lump me in with the people who pretend we’re in a free speech dystopia just because sometimes privileged people are being mocked too. That’s not it. That’s not it at all. I don’t mind jokes that don’t come with a mean spirited intent, and that aren’t targeting a genuine source of pain and trauma.

I just want activists to take a moment to think about which category their joke actually belongs in.

On Love and Meltdowns

I’m currently relearning how to do special education. I spent seven years in Virginia, supporting a mix of affluent and middle class families, in a relatively privileged and academically advanced district. Now I’m in a city that I love, but which does not have a good reputation, as far as education goes. I’m in a school that mostly supports low income families. Their idea of a kid who is academically doing well is one who I would have considered, in Virginia, to be a solid grade behind. On top of that, I’ve switched from classrooms that mainly support autistic or learning disabled students, who occasionally had behavioral or mood disorders complicating their situation, to a class where the primary issue for nearly everyone is behavioral/emotional.

It’s been a pretty sobering week, and on my third day in I nearly cried, but not because of anything particularly bad that happened. Bites, punches, kicks, spit and the odd thrown chair are all part of the drill for me. I can shrug them off, and get right to, “why did this happen and what can I do about it?”

Not much bad happened that day. Nobody was on the verge of getting hurt. But kids were being defiant, in a way that bothered me not because I particularly cared whether they listened or not, but because it was a type of defiance that only comes from a place of deep hurt. There’s a type of disobedience that you only see from kids who have given up on the whole idea of adults being trustworthy. Or who have given up on the expectation of patience and gentleness. Or have given up on themselves.

I’m not used to that. I’m used to a kid having a meltdown because they want to ask for gummy bears but the batteries are dead on their communication device.

Now, for the first time in years, I have no clue what I’m doing.

But here’s the cool thing. I’m not just in a “bad school.” I’m in what’s called a turnaround school. I’m in a school where the parents and educators recently rose up, said that enough was enough, and demanded the resources and accountability to get things fixed. I’m in a school where, behind as they are, over the past year their scores and achievements have dramatically increased. I’m in a school where the whole team is done with “this is hard” as an excuse.

The one thing I haven’t seen is a lack of love for the kids. I thought I worked with some great teachers in Northern Virginia (and I did!) but there were always some rotten apples who just didn’t care anymore. Or who only wanted to care about the “good” (read, “easy”) kids. Or who only cared about the white and Asian kids. In this school, I haven’t met a single person who wasn’t ready to work their ass off to help every damn kid in the building.

I wanted to cry on Wednesday, but I didn’t, because one of the behavior support staff said, “we’re just glad you’re trying. In the past we’ve worked with people who don’t even try.” And then we had a long, good conversation about what I was learning about these kids, and what I can do better. I tried her advice, and today went better.

Tomorrow might be better or might be worse. But it will be okay. It will be okay.